When Nat turned 4, however, the time came for something more structured. We shopped around and finally decided on a tiny, nonsectarian school in a nearby Sufi community. At that point, the only thing we could conjure up around the word "Sufi" was the image of whirling dervishes, but a little research informed us that Sufism is a Muslim mystic tradition without any body of dogma or prescribed rituals. It advocates immersion in life and connection with the divine through music, poetry, and dance. Sufism, we read, is the "religion of the heart," and Sufis seek God in the heart of humanity.
That sounded all-embracing enough for '60s people like us, and the school certainly looked safe, loving, and peaceful. In fact, we felt that the kind of peace that the school radiated might be a good influence on Nat, who had always been a very competitive, driven sort of personality. From the beginning, his idea of a good time has involved loud music, bright lights, and lots of movement. He has also been highly attuned to the zeitgeist, whether Nintendo, X-Men, or action figures. We thought that going to school at the Sufi compound--which exists almost entirely outside of mainstream America--might be a balancing influence on our live-wire guy. So we signed him on.
Physically, one could hardly have asked for a more idyllic site. It sat at the end of a bucolic road lined with authentic Shaker buildings, sheep pastures, and apple orchards. The school was housed in one of the community's rustic buildings and was entirely heated by wood. On wintry days, children with rosy faces arrived bundled up in layers of hand-knitted woolens. Lunch, taken in a cozy room, consisted of things like lentil soup and kasha pilaf with nary a marshmallow fluff and hydrogenated peanut butter sandwich in sight. The classroom was alive with creativity: At one point, it was even transformed into a rain forest, where parents were invited to spend an evening eating bananas under paper palm fronds. A bit of a drawback for Nat was the lack of real sports. He could, however, get his soccer from a neighborhood league, and he seemed happy enough that first year.
He then went on to two wonderful years with an earthy young woman from Texas whose Sufi name was Shafiya. She had been a serious athlete growing up, and so she fully appreciated Nat's athleticism. In fact, she appreciated everything about him, and they shared a great love that we believe Nat still draws on today.
As satisfying as those years were, however, there were moments when we wondered whether Nat and the school might not be in some sort of culture clash. One day, he came home and told us about a substitute teacher he had named "Flattop." We thought he might have been confused by the character in the "Dick Tracy" movie, but he stood his ground. Some time later, however, we met Flattop...except her name was Aftab, another Sufi appellation.
Nat, now 7, moved on to Dorothy, the school's director. Dorothy never seemed terribly happy around Nat, although she did have an apparent fondness for one very gentle boy who used to follow her around saying, "Can I give you just one more hug today, Dorothy? Please?" (So Nat reported with a rather jaundiced expression.)
Still, even though Dorothy and Nat obviously didn't click, the year progressed in its own creative fashion, with Scottish dancing, a unit on whales, hand-sewn books, and so forth. On birthdays, the birthday boy or girl got to wear a crown and received the most loving cards from every single person in the school.
We were soon to find out, however, that the school was not quite so loving and accepting as it appeared. Nat, for his part, had already come to that conclusion. He reported that "people at the school smile when they're angry." And then in May, Dorothy told us bluntly that she would really like us to find another school for the following year. She'd had enough of his attempts to turn apple picking and sledding into competitive events. His drive was driving her to the brink.
"Your son is just too competitive for this environment," she told us. "We really don't feel he belongs here." Our son had been expelled--from second grade. The school, it seemed, was a place for one kind of kid--the kind who asks to give more hugs, please. The child who throws himself into a soccer game or lustily climbs a tree would not fit in.
The next year, Nat started public school. There were lots of kids, a schoolyard, noise, sports, and marshmallow fluff sandwiches. It had its ups and downs, but he was like a pig in mud. And as we would watch him careen around his new environment, we couldn't help registering the irony--that there was no place for our whirling dervish in a Sufi school.